Five candidates are running for three seats on the Zone 7 Water Agency board of directors in the March 3 presidential primary election.
Board President Sandy Figuers and incumbents Dick Quigley and Angela Ramirez Holmes are being challenged by Hugh Bussell and Laurene Green. The top three vote-getters win the seats; there is no run-off election.
Director Michelle Smith McDonald, appointed last year after a board member resigned, was the only candidate to file for a short term which expires in 2022 and automatically wins the seat.
The Independent emailed the questions to each candidate. They were asked what motivated them to run, and to discuss their qualifications.
As to issues, one question asked whether the price of agricultural water is fair. Urban customers pay more than their farming counterparts, because the agricultural water does not have to be treated for impurities.
However, a recent study led staff to recommend a 30% increase, later lowered to 10%, to agricultural water on a par with urban water in raising revenue for common costs, such as securing future water supply. The board, as part of an ongoing annual review of water fees, wound up raising the price for 2020 by 3.6%, from $167 to $173 per acre foot. An acre foot is that mount of water that covers one acre to a depth of one foot. The board’s vote for 3.6% was 5-2, with Quigley and and Vice President Olivia Sanwong wanting to know more information before making a decision.
Another question involved Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement he will cut the Delta Fix bypass from two tunnels to one, or ax the project altogether.
There was a question about potable reuse, which would use reverse osmosis filters to strain out viruses, store the water in a pond or underground basin, and ultimately add it to the urban water supply. Is it safe? Zone 7 has been looking at other new sources of water, for example getting the salts out of briny water from the Carquinez Strait, which is not as salty as the ocean. Several water agencies could share costs and build a network.
Another option would buy more water rights from Central Valley water storage districts, as Zone 7 does now. Taking part in Sites Reservoir, a plan to catch new snowmelt and rain run-off north of the Delta, can be an option. Zone 7 has already paid a placeholder fee to help support a study of the project. Zone 7 has also considered storing water in Los Vaqueros Dam in Contra Costa County. A combination of several projects might be possible.
Candidates appear in alphabetical order.
I’m running to provide another perspective on the board. It’s important to have new ideas, and to have members from both public and private industry backgrounds on the board.
In addition to my experience managing an international technical training organization, my background includes a degree in physics from U.C. Berkeley, with studies in organic and analytic chemistry. Those fields are directly applicable to understanding the challenges and solutions to providing and monitoring clean, pure water.
My financial experience has been strengthened by my terms serving on the board of directors of UNCLE Credit Union, serving as a fiduciary for our members. As someone who has worked in industries that depend on innovation, I can bring new ways of approaching old problems.
Our quality of life in this area is tremendously enhanced by agriculture. Try to imagine what life would be like here if we did not have all the vineyards that you see today. It’s important to realize the differences between retail water and water for agricultural uses. There is a tremendous cost to providing the infrastructure to provide water for retail use that is not part of the agricultural water infrastructure. In the last 20 years, our vineyard users have reduced their water needs per acre by two-thirds, by implementing best practices in water conservation and innovations in irrigation.
I would continue to have agricultural users charged at the rates that allow them to continue to succeed here. If we can do more to assist in the expansion of Livermore wine country, I am willing to support that.
I’m glad that the tunnel plan has been reduced to one. The tunnels themselves do not help us source any more water for our needs, except in the promise that the tunnel will allow us to capture more water during very wet periods. This water could be used to recharge aquifers or be sent out of our area to the southern parts of the state. There are some promised improvements to the wildlife habitats and to water salinity in the Delta region, but there is also concern that farming in that region will be harmed by how the water is allocated. I remain skeptical that Zone 7 will benefit more than it will be hurt by the tunnel.
It's in all our interests to expand the portfolio of sources of water. In order to provide housing, we need to assure a supply of clean water for residential use, and developers look to us to provide those supplies. We need to look at all possible sources, including reverse-osmosis. I’m cautiously optimistic that we can, with the proper monitoring, use that technology to augment our water supply. However, the details of how to keep that supply safe, and whether it makes economic sense to use reverse-osmosis, are still questions we will have to resolve.
OTHER WATER OPTIONS
My favorite is to increase our capacity to store water from our peak wet periods. Del Valle can store more than it currently does. We have to take a serious look at desalinization. There is currently a large desalinization plant in Carlsbad, California, and Israel gets 50% of its water by that method. The key is to be open to new ideas, and to keep up with the technological advancements in our field.
Zone 7 is moving in the right direction, but can still improve its communications. I wouldn’t suggest additional resources at this time, but as the team in place gets better, I think you will see good results.
People have approached me on the issue of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in our water. While Zone 7 is taking actions to keep within the federal and state guidelines for these substances, I pledge to keep the agency responsive to our changing understanding of how these chemicals affect us, and how to protect us from any harmful effects.
My family and I have lived in the Valley for more than 30 years. During that time, I have worked as a geologist and engineer all over the Bay Area. In the early 1990’s, I analyzed and defined the sub-surface geology of the greater San Francisco Bay for the United States Geological Survey. In the late 1990’s, I defined the groundwater sub-basins in the East Bay for the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
In the mid-2000’s, I did the first sequence-stratigraphic analysis and cross-sections of the main basin for Zone 7. The Livermore Valley is surprisingly complex geologically and hydrologically, and there is still much that is unknown.
I have always been passionate about the geology and groundwater in the Livermore Valley. I have been honored to have served on the board since 1988 and hope you will allow me to continue representing you.
Zone 7 has never charged the untreated water customers (agriculture) the internal cost of collecting their water payments. The collection costs have historically been small and it was never worth the trouble to calculate and collect them (in pre-computer times). Those ‘lost’ costs were never considered a subsidy. With computerized accounting systems, those collection costs can be now be determined at the click of a button. The question is: what to do about them?
Most governments subsidize various organizations to one degree or another. Over the past decade, the Valley has promoted the Livermore Valley as a wine tourist destination. Government money has been spent on this project. Increases in the state’s water costs coupled with competition from outside wineries are challenging this economic model. Whether or not to collect those fees is just beginning to be debated.
The choice of none, one, or two tunnels is now moot. The governor chose the one tunnel solution. Time will tell if it was the correct decision.
POTABLE WATER REUSE
The potable water cleaning method is now used by some large water agencies to recycle/recharge wastewater. Those agencies have groundwater basins orders of magnitude larger than our main basin. They have room for error. The Zone does not. Any proposal for direct injection of highly treated wastewater in our basin would have to be stringently vetted.
Most of the mentioned water sources have been evaluated. The Zone was one of the first to join the Sites project. Los Vaqueros has been considered several times since 1998. The Zone has several water storage projects in the southern Central Valley. The Zone will continue to evaluate these and other sources of water based on cost and suitability.
Over the past several years, the Zone has strived to increase its transparency. The web site is continuously evolving, board meetings are televised, and board members are more active in the community. This trend will continue.
The Zone is also a flood control agency. The valley drainage system (canals and streams) is over 60 years old. The canals (excavated in clay-like soils) are aging and the banks are failing at higher rates during heavy rainstorms. Eventually, they have to be rebuilt. The main streams are beginning to meander, causing problems to homes that were allowed to be constructed next to the creeks. The Valley has yet to experience storms as large as the 1954 storms. That was one of the triggers for the formation of the Zone. Flood control will become more visible in the next decades.
I am running for the Zone 7 board because supplying clean, safe water has become more complex and technically challenging. Many new and emerging contaminates are being discovered in our drinking water that are a risk to our health. My education and experience will be important when scientifically-supported solutions are evaluated. I have a bachelor’s degree in geology, and a master’s degree in civil engineering – water resources. I’ve applied my skills in the United States and abroad, including a project at LLNL’s groundwater cleanup. I am a member of the Pleasanton Committee on Energy and the Environment.
The Zone 7 method of allocating costs to water delivery for both treated and untreated water is not transparent enough for thorough public review. I also believe in basic fairness. Treated and untreated water rates should be decided at the same time to aid in rate comparison and expense allocations. Regarding Zone 7 assisting the expansion of acreage within Livermore Valley, the market will determine the demand for Livermore wines. I do not support one ratepayer subsidizing another.
As a board member, it will be my job to consider all affordable water supply alternatives. Although still a work in progress, the single tunnel project deserves consideration. So far, the project appears to meet the following positive criteria:
• Increases the reliability of state water which we are highly dependent on.
• Captures cleaner water upstream of cities and the Delta. Considers the Delta ecosystem when allocating water and construction alternatives.
• May decrease some losses due to evaporation.
• Maintains the proportions current customers are entitled to.
• May give us increased quantities during high-rain years, if we can find storage.
By participating in this project, we help to keep water in Northern California.
Potable reuse does not meet my three hurdles:
1) Technical assurance that we know all contaminants in the water and can treat them;
2) It is equal or lower in cost to other alternatives;
3) The public has voted approval, especially Pleasanton, which voted a resounding “no” in 2000, on a reverse osmosis project proposed by water retailer Dublin San Ramon Services District.
If one needs to be reminded about how important the first criteria is, look no further than the current PFAS issue – they are the unknown contaminants of yesteryear. Let’s figure out how to cleanup PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) before we start looking towards even more toxic sewer water as a source. According to Zone 7’s 2019 Water Supply Evaluation Update, all the projects mentioned are less expensive than Potable Reuse.
Zone 7 has improved their public notifications, but additional clarity is still needed. Televised meetings are helpful, but for example, the complex method of allocation for costs of treated versus untreated water rates are still unclear to everyone I talk to.
I am passionate about California, the Bay Area and the Delta, and the Livermore-Amador Valley. I have served as a board member of Zone 7 Water Agency since 2004, or 16 years experience. I have the energy and desire to continue my community service. I have brought measurable savings by leading energy renewable solar programs and recreational trail connections between Pleasanton, Dublin, Livermore , Lake Del Valle and Regional open space.
My management and teaching background, with community leadership, watershed resources, park, and open space has enabled me to deliver savings locally. Water is key to the economic health of the Tri-Valley, and I am committed to help ensure we have an ample supply of quality water. I am a fifth-generation Californian, and I have served as a team member of water groups at Lawrence Livermore National Lab and on State Water Committees. I believe in continuing education and have an understanding of the California water crisis, the Delta, storage and conveyance, drought, and global warming issues. I will always be in the learning mode to make tomorrow better than today for our quality of life. I believe water and sustainability are key ingredients of that future.
The untreated ag rate at the State Water Project turn-outs should be built to correctly capture costs of state water, capital facilities upgrades, and administration in the interest of all rate payers.
DELTA FIX, OTHER PROJECTS
I support a diversified portfolio approach for source water. Some 80% of our water is imported from Lake Orville, and I have confidence that we can manage our future droughts better. We wheel water from Yuba River, Byron Bethany (Irrigation District), and others when available. I am an advocate for water reuse, and believe we have the technology to keep our public safe. Orange County and others have been at it successfully for years. We are getting closer; however, it is not a silver bullet as there is not enough.
There are no cheap solutions. I favor going after free lost rainfall locally first! We lose many thousands of acre feet per year out to the bay because we don’t have a local storage solution. I have been advocating Del Valle, and Chain of Lakes as possibilities. I favor an inter-tie at Del Valle with San Francisco Public Utilities (SFPUC) water pipeline (which runs through the Tri-Valley near Livermore and Sunol) as an option. Sandia and LLNL get their water from an isolated turn-out from SFPUC (The source is Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, near Yosemite National Park.)
Sites Reservoir will give the state system flexibility. but it is a long ways in the future. We do need a conveyance fix through the Delta.
SFPUC and East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) both have isolated conveyance systems (pipelines and rivers, but not the Delta) from their watersheds to their customers. We need to be mindful of their success and copy them. They have great water, and use far less chemicals in their treatment process.
I am proud to have brought the goal of transparency from the CSDA (California Special Districts Association) to Zone 7 a number of years ago, as I have served as a board representative to CSDA.
Angela Ramirez Holmes
I am a 20-year Tri-Valley resident and active community member. As a director, I've asked the tough questions about Zone 7's finances and voted time and again against double-digit water rate increases. Critical post-drought decisions will be made in the next few years regarding future water supply and local storage. The community must be included in these discussions.
My background in public policy together with my leadership on the Board as a Director and as President making Agency improvements in outreach, transparency, and process has prepared me to continue this work.
I do not believe Zone 7 is subsidizing agriculture. The board’s policy is that the rates charged to untreated customers are a pass through of actual costs. We did a rate study for our untreated water customers for the first time in 2018 and subsequently raised the rates significantly to be consistent with our policy.
Unfortunately, when we were considering rates for 2020, we did not yet have the data from 2019 to show whether the rates that were raised in 2018 were in fact the right amount. Given that, I could not support the staff-recommended double digit increase on agriculture customers.
So, the board adopted a one year rate based on the 2018 methodology (an increase of 3.6%), asked for the 2019 reconciliation, and directed staff to have further conversations with our untreated water customers prior to the next rate discussion.
DELTA WATER FIX
I am not a supporter of any tunnel project. I was one of the two board members to vote against. I have serious concerns about the finances, the actual ability to get anything built, and the environmental issues.
POTABLE WATER REUSE
I am committed to a safe and reliable water supply. In response to the drought, the Tri-Valley water agencies and cities established a series of meetings, now called the Tri-Valley Water Liaison Committee. Beginning in 2016, the group focused on potable reuse as it could provide a local water supply and because it required coordination among many of the agencies. The agencies funded and completed a Joint Tri-Valley Potable Reuse Technical Feasibility Study in May 2018. That study showed that a project was feasible but also highlighted the need for additional technical studies.
The process, science, and regulations have come a long way since the issue was first brought to the Tri-Valley in the late 1990s.
While I still have questions about the feasibility and acceptance of potable reuse, I support continuing with the next round of shared studies. We are still a way off from deciding on support for an actual project.
Diversification of our supply is important because the region’s long-term water supply reliability goals cannot be met with existing supplies and we have recently seen vulnerability in periods of drought.
Zone 7 is currently studying, and the board has voted to invest in various water supply reliability options including a Delta Fix, Sites Reservoir, potable reuse, regional desalination, and water transfers. These projects are phased, allowing us to explore how best to meet our future long-term water supply goals. At this point, there isn’t enough information on any project to rank them in any kind of order. They all have different feasibility, challenges, yield, timeline, and cost.
Since joining the board, greater transparency and outreach with the public has been a priority for me as a Director. I successfully fought for televised meetings, regular finance committee meetings, liaison committee meetings, comprehensive financial documents, an expanded audit process, a formal review process for our general manager, the first ever review process for our contracted attorney, the first ever agency open house, an annual meeting for legislators and staff, and prioritized communications on our agency’s strategic plan. Transparency isn’t a checkbox. It is a continuing conversation with the public we serve to build trust, listen to concerns, and be open with our decision-making process.